Uniting the Jewish People

Vayeshev By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Dec 20, 1997 / 5758 | Torah Commentary | Conservative Judaism Israel

This week I will leave for Israel to attend the World Zionist Congress along with 37 other delegates from MERCAZ, the official Zionist party of the Conservative Movement in the United States. Despite the overblown rhetoric that will be heard in Jerusalem, no one should imagine that this Congress is a matter of any consequence. Zionism is alive and well, but the World Zionist Organization died a long time ago. In Jewish life we simply can’t muster the political will to dismantle organizational structures designed for a specific purpose after they have been crowned with success.

The recent elections in America for the World Zionist Congress prove my point incontrovertibly. Only 150,000 Jews registered to vote and no more than 110,000 of them actually saw fit to vote. Surely more than 2% of American Jewry is devoted to the cause of Zionism! Rather, the existing organizational structure, a relic of the heyday of the pre-state Zionist movement, is no longer adequate to give expression to the nature and expanse of Zionist sentiment in America. And no amount of campaign spending is going to rev up a political machinery encrusted with so much rust.

What the elections did reveal is the importance of the synagogue in American Jewish life. Some 75% of the vote was cast by Reform and Conservative Jews for the lists of their particular Zionist parties, with ARZA getting 49% and MERCAZ 26%. If we add the 11% garnered by the Religious Zionists (Orthodox), we see that the 57% of American Jews unaffiliated with a synagogue are barely represented in the panoply of old Zionist political parties. The preponderance of Reform and Conservative delegates coming from the United States means that the deliberations of the World Zionist Congress will be dominated by the issue of religious pluralism in Israel, as was the recent General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations in Indianapolis. The vast majority of Jews engaged in the organizational life of American Jewry belong to the synagogues of the Conservative and Reform movements.

As usual, our weekly parasha is not without some relevance to the issue of the moment. Jacob has returned from a long stay abroad to settle in the land promised to his father and grandfather. At the head of a large and prosperous household, he is reconciled to his estranged brother, Esau, and committed to the God of his parents. He imagines living out the rest of his days in tranquility. Instead, things unravel quickly, and it is of his own doing. (Not all our troubles are inflicted from outside!) There is a natural cleavage in his family between the sons of Leah and Rachel which Jacob aggravates: “Now Israel loved Joseph best of all his sons, for he was the child of his old age; and he had made him an ornamented tunic (Genesis 37:3).” The favoritism fuels tension with passion, with violence to follow. Despite the warning signs, Jacob remains oblivious to his lethal misstep; he loves Joseph too much.

A midrash censures Jacob for his folly. Jacob’s act of preferential treatment is seen as an instance of a verse in the Song of Songs that draws an elusive parallel between the power of love and jealousy: “For love is fierce as death, passion [Hebrew – kinah, with a basic meaning of jealousy] is mighty as Sheol [the netherworld] (Song of Songs 8:6).” What should love and its opposite be doing side by side? It happens on occasions where love is not dispensed wisely. Joseph fell afoul of his brothers because of the excessive love bestowed upon him by Jacob.

Similarly, the Zohar takes a dim view. To be singled out for special favor is a curse rather than a blessing, disrupting the harmony of the family of nations no less than that of the household. Thus, the fate of Joseph foreshadows the fate of all Israel. “Behold because of the love which God has for Israel, drawing it ever so close, all the other nations hate Israel, for they are distant while Israel is near. Note well, precisely because of the love which Jacob had for Joseph over and above his brothers, and irrespective of the fact that they were his brothers, the Torah writes ‘they conspired to kill him (Genesis 37:18).'” Indeed, the Zohar tallies up the cost of Jacob’s indiscreet tunic. “It resulted in Joseph being banished from his father, Jacob being banished from the land and even God’s divine presence, the Shekhina, being forced to go into exile (to accompany Jacob and his family).”

The independence of both these readings is quite remarkable. They challenge the viewpoint of Genesis itself, which holds that the destiny of human affairs is largely preordained by God, and that our freedom to choose is restricted. Thus Joseph tells his fearful brothers after the death of their father that though they intended him harm, God’s will prevailed to rescue the family from starvation (Genesis 50:20). Later commentators like the midrash and Zohar were less confident that suffering always yields beneficence. A long litany of persecution had intervened to obscure God’s design. Evil could no longer be easily couched as an instrument for good.

It is in this spirit that I wish to apply the lesson implicit in Jacob’s folly. Parents who play favorites among their children set them on a collision course for life. The family is a body politic in miniature, with parents in the role of central authority. Where that authority is exercised unfairly and inequitably, mutual respect and harmony will rarely come to characterize the interaction of the subjects.

If, analogously, we may describe the religious movements in modern Judaism as the children of Israel, then religious pluralism is a political arrangement that would keep the Jewish state from favoring one to the exclusion of the others, or from granting one power over the others. The old Turkish millet system of ordering religious affairs in Palestine is no more suited to the dynamic reality of a post-emancipation Jewish world than is the antiquated structure of the World Zionist Organization to expressing the nature of contemporary Zionism. Historically, the office of chief rabbi, wherever it appears, has always been thrust on a Jewish community by gentile rulers to facilitate their external control. The State of Israel need not be Orthodox to be Jewish. In fact, it will remain at the center of a united Jewish people only if it ceases to take sides in the religious disputes of this extraordinary period of spiritual vitality and renewal.

Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Va-yeishev are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.